3 Steps to Understanding Games User Research

The Acagamic Tip Tuesday #56

Young games user researcher struggling to figure it all out. Young games user researcher.

In today’s newsletter, you’re going to learn how to navigate the basics of games user research.

Understanding how to bridge the gap between design intent and the created artifact can immensely benefit your game design process. This knowledge empowers designers to make informed decisions and evaluate the intended effect of their decisions. It ultimately enhances the gaming experience for users and can significantly boost the overall success of a game.

Unfortunately, many people underestimate the importance of user research in games or struggle to make actionable progress due to several barriers.

Lack of Domain Knowledge

Often, people don’t fully comprehend the unique nuances and requirements of the gaming industry. Here are 4 primary reasons people tend to falter in games user research:

  • Lack of familiarity with gaming: Understanding the language and mechanics of games is vital. You can’t effectively research without engaging in the medium you’re studying.
  • Neglecting the emotional aspect of gaming: Unlike usability research for applications where efficiency is key, games require a balance of challenge and enjoyment. Overlooking this can lead to ineffective research.
  • Underestimating the importance of designer’s intent: Successful user research in games requires a deep understanding of the designer’s vision and goals.
  • Challenges of the secretive nature of the gaming industry: The highly confidential nature of game development can hinder the application of conventional user research methods.

Worry not, my friend. You can overcome these hurdles and become proficient in games user research. Here’s how, step by step:

Step 1: Immerse yourself in the world of gaming.

Understanding the language and mechanics of games is crucial to conducting effective user research. By immersing yourself in the gaming world, you get a firsthand experience of what gamers go through.

For instance, if you’re studying an adventure game, play it. Understand the challenges players face, the rewards they seek, and the journey they undertake. This first-hand experience will provide invaluable insights that can guide your research.

Step 2: Understand the emotional aspects of gaming.

A common mistake researchers make is treating game user research like usability testing for web applications. The objective of a game isn’t necessarily efficiency—it’s enjoyment.

Consider a scenario where a player is battling a dragon in a game. The player might not want to slay the dragon quickly because the process—casting spells, using weapons—is enjoyable. As a researcher, understanding this emotional aspect of gaming is critical to capturing the user’s experience accurately.

Step 3: Develop an understanding of the designer’s intent.

The key to successful games user research is understanding the designer’s intent. This understanding is the bridge between design intent and the created artifact.

Let’s take an example: a designer may intentionally create a difficult to find passage in a game to challenge the player. As a user researcher, you may flag this as a problem, thinking players are unable to find it. However, if this difficulty aligns with the designer’s intent, it’s not a problem. Understanding the designer’s intent can help you better identify actual issues that hinder the gaming experience.

By following these steps, you’ll be well on your way to conducting effective games user research, improving the gaming experience, and ultimately contributing to the success of the game.

Lennart Nacke, PhD
Lennart Nacke, PhD

Hey there, I am a Professor and the Research Director of the HCI Games Group at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I am a world-leading expert on what makes games engaging and how we can use them to improve products, systems, and services. My research is widely discussed and recognized by the New Yorker, Forbes, MIT Technology Review, CTV News, New Scientist, The Daily Mail, PC Gamer Magazine, and elsewhere. I have edited a textbook on Games User Research and authored hundreds of academic articles in gamification, user experience research, human-computer interaction, and game design.